Mark Laidlaw will give just about any athlete a chance on his team — as long as they’re in shape and willing to try something new.
“We’ve got a girl who was a competitive skier. We’ve got a guy who was a swimmer and a guy who actually tried bodybuilding for a little while,” said Laidlaw, the newly named head coach of the Dinos rowing club. “There’s a wide range of backgrounds, and that’s one thing that’s really unique about rowing. It’s what some people refer to as a late-maturing sport.”
Laidlaw, who has represented Canada in various international rowing competitions, including winning silver in the men’s eight at the 2011 Pan American Games, will be scouring campus for the most able bodies in hopes of adapting them to a sport that requires exceptional fitness.
“I talked to a couple people in the gym, just walking up to them and saying, ‘Have you ever tried? I think you’d be good,’ ” said Laidlaw. “I’m not sure if we’re going to do it before the summer, but certainly in the fall there’s a talent identification program that Rowing Canada has set forth. We really want to capitalize on that and do a little bit more of a formal talent identification test.”
The test is not for the moderately fit, and includes taking a spin on a contraption known as the death bike — which involves pedaling on a stationary bike while pulling back-and-forth on a machine.
Such tests exemplify the harsh physical demands of rowing, but unlike many other sports, athletes often don’t get involved in rowing until a later age.
“It’s never too late with rowing. I know a lot of sports people do get worried about missing their chance,” said Laidlaw, adding that many Olympic rowers compete into their 30s and even their 40s. “It’s not unusual for people to start rowing at university, so part of my challenge now is actually taking over the recruitment process.”
Those who do get involved with the Dinos rowing club have the opportunity to benefit from a high level of training and instruction. Laidlaw has coached different levels ranging from high school to national.
Prior to his coaching days he honed his leadership skills as a coxswain — the guy who sits in the front of the boat with a headset and guides the team through the race, relaying calls from the coach.
“The coxswain is a very unique position, really in all of sport, just because it’s one of the few positions that’s not based on athleticism. Your physical requirement is just that you’re small and light,” said Laidlaw. “But it really takes a different type of role. It’s far more cognitive. It’s all strategy. So the coxswain is really in charge of executing the practice smoothly, relaying calls from the coach — kind of acts as sort of a coach in the boat.”
Laidlaw began his coaching career in 2011, the same year he won silver in the Pan Ams as a coxswain. He was asked by Rowing Canada to join them for the World Champions, not on the boat but on the sidelines.
“It was a pretty easy transition. The skills are very transferable from coxswain,” said Laidlaw. “I found it quite natural going back and coaching my high school and then coaching here. It’s something that I really enjoy doing.”
Laidlaw is hoping to have a stabilizing impact on the Dinos rowers, who have been guided by outgoing coach Sarah Lang for the past few years.
“I understand that the team had a stable coach for the last two or three years, but before that there were two coach changeovers in a pretty short time,” said Laidlaw. “Hopefully I’ll bring a little more stability so we can maintain some momentum with existing athletes.”